Today I found out why crackers have holes.
Surprisingly, it turns out the holes are there for a reason, not just for decoration or for convenience in some manufacturing process, as one might expect. In actuality, without these holes, crackers wouldn’t bake correctly. These holes allow steam to escape during cooking. This keeps the crackers flat, instead of rising a bit like a normal biscuit as the steam tries to escape; these holes also help to properly crisp the crackers.
When crackers are made, dough is rolled flat in sheets. These sheets then travel under a mechanism containing “docker” pins that end up putting the holes in the dough. The hole’s positioning and number varies depending on the size and shape of the cracker. If the holes are too close together, the cracker will end up being extra dry and hard, due to too much steam escaping. If the holes end up being too far apart, parts of the cracker will rise a bit forming little bubbles on the surface of the cracker, which is undesirable in most types of crackers.
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- The first cracker was made in 1792 by John Pearson in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Pearson was looking to make a type of biscuit that would last longer than traditional sailor’s biscuits without spoiling. He eventually mixed just flour and water, baked it, and called his invention “Pearson’s Pilot Bread”. This later became known as “hardtack” or “sea biscuit”. This type of biscuit became incredibly popular among sea-faring folk due to its long shelf life without spoiling.
- The name “cracker” comes from a fateful day in 1801, also in Massachusetts, when Josiah Bent accidentally burned a batch of what we now call crackers. As the crackers burned, they made a crackling noise, which inspired the name. Bent was also the one who pioneered the cracker as a snack food, not just for sailors rations as his competition were selling them as. To make them popular as a snack food, he knew he’d have to improve on the flavor. He experimented around until he eventually came up with soda crackers, which were precursors to saltine crackers and were generally considered tastier than Pearson’s Pilot Bread. By 1810, Bent’s cracker business was incredibly successful and it eventually was acquired by the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco). However, you can still buy crackers made by the company Bent’s grandson founded, G.H. Bent Co. They still sell hardtack, as well as other types of crackers; you can even purchase from them online.
- Nabisco, using Bent’s recipe, eventually released the saltine cracker in 1876. Their slogan for this new cracker was “Polly wants a cracker?”
- Saltine crackers were mildly successful after being released, but received a huge boost in popularity thanks to the Great Depression. Saltines were a nice cheap, tasty filler to add to other foods such as watery soup, to make the meal more filling.
- Graham crackers were invented by Sylvester Graham in 1829. Graham was farm-hand and a teacher who turned Presbyterian minister due to poor health. During his time as a minister, Graham developed a unique system for maintaining health. He recommended hard mattresses for sleeping; keeping your bedroom windows open at all times for fresh air; cold showers; loose clothing; consuming only pure water; and exercising regularly. Graham also promoted a type of coarse, unsifted wheat flour, touting its high fiber content. The main ingredient in Graham crackers is this type of flour, which was eventually also named Graham flour, after the minister. Hence the name “Graham Crackers”.
- The term “biscuit”, derives from the Latin “bis coctus”, meaning “twice baked”, which is essentially what many types of biscuits are. The term first showed up in English around the 14th century. In America, the term biscuit now pretty much only means a small, quick rising, soft bread product. In most of the rest of the English speaking world, biscuit still refers to such things as hardtack, small cakes, cookies, etc.
- The word “cookie” comes from the Dutch “koekjes” which came from the Dutch “koek”, meaning “cake”; cookie was introduced to English in the very early 18th century. It is thought this term caught on more in the United States due to the strong Dutch heritage in early America. The British prefer to call cookies “small cakes, seed biscuits, or tea cakes”.
- Over $10 billion worth of crackers are sold within the United States alone every year.
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